When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.’ John 20:22
Telling the story of Jesus many years after the events described had taken place, Saint John sometimes draws upon the insights of retrospect to comment upon what is being said. So it is with lines from Saint John Chapter 7, where John quotes the words of Jesus and then clarifies their meaning for his readers,
“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.'”
Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
What does it mean to receive the Spirit?
The Day of Pentecost changed the disciples and there are Christians who still think that being Spirit-filled is to demonstrate strange gifts, that it demands odd behaviour. There are churches that focus on behaviour that would be regarded as a cause of concern for the mental health of the participants if it occurred elsewhere.
Saint Paul did not prioritise the sort of expression that has become seen as essential in some churches. Writing to the Christians at Corinth, Saint Paul emphasised that people should produce the fruits of the Spirit, writing to the Christians at Galatia that these were love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
What then does a person who has received the Spirit look like? Is it someone who makes a point of being demonstrative about their faith, or is it something much more personal and reflective.
Arthur Robinson’s book The Personal Life of the Christian was first published in 1902, republished in 1980 and, a hundred and twenty years after it was written, it still contains a lot of common sense. Robinson recounts two stories of Spirit-filled people:
A mission was being conducted in a pit village of the county of Durham. The schoolmaster of the place was a hard-headed north countryman; and it might have seemed that he was inclined to be somewhat hard-hearted too. At any rate, he had no great belief in missions, and did not think much of emotional religion. He was extremely reserved about the whole matter. But there was one topic upon which he was always ready to talk. Speak to him of a man who five-and-twenty years before had been the vicar of the district, and at once a chord was set vibrating within him. Asked one day whether he thought that his old vicar, who had become famous in the Church, was still the same humble and genuine man that he had been in the days when he had known him first, he replied at once in tones that were almost indignant; ‘Why,’ he said, ‘you have only to shake that man’s hand to feel that he is full of the Holy Ghost!’ He could not have explained it, but he could quite well recognize the fact.
Not indeed that it has always been necessary to shake a man’s hand before coming to a similar conclusion. An Archbishop of York told his Ordination candidates of a young clergyman who had been appointed to a country parish. His stay in it, as it proved, was not to be for long. He was scarcely more than thirty when he died. After an interval had passed, a friend who known him well visited the place, eager to discover what kind of impression he had made. Meeting a labourer, he asked him the question, ‘Did he think Mr. – had done any good?’ Again there was no sort of hesitation in the answer, ‘I never saw that man cross the common yonder, sir, without being the better for it.’
Nothing extravagant, nothing extraverted, instead ordinary people in ordinary places who seemed somehow to possess extraordinary qualities.
Imagine a handshake being sufficient to convey a sense of the Holy Spirit, imagine being seen walking in the distance being enough to create a sense of well-being in the person who catches sight of you.
The Day of Pentecost is a reminder to Christians of the qualities to which they should aspire.